The annual performance review has long been a fraught ritual that both managers and employees dread. Now that it's evolved, in many companies, into a less formal, yearlong process often called a "continual conversation," managers face new challenges.
Perhaps most notably, managers are now saddled with more work: conducting check-ins with multiple employees twice a month, holding quarterly meetings that can include feedback from colleagues and subordinates, writing detailed reports, and analyzing feedback surveys. The annual meeting about salary and bonuses remains on the docket as well.
"It can be a big problem," said Brian Kropp, a human resources expert at the Gartner Group, a Connecticut-based research and advisory company. "Managers spend an average of 210 hours per year on performance management, and our data shows their No. 1 frustration with the process is how time-consuming it is."
Experts say there are several ways to make this new era of performance reviews less cumbersome. For example, managers should get employees more invested in the process by having them do the bulk of the prep work for the check-ins and meetings. Managers should also act more like coaches and make the frequent sessions less formal, with an emphasis on keeping them collaborative. And they should use feedback technology to automate more parts of the process.
As far as workload goes, "you don't have to take all that responsibility on yourself," said Dick Grote, a Texas-based management consultant who has worked at General Electric, United Airlines and Frito-Lay. "Put that work on the employee."
Give employees standard templates and frameworks with directed questions to answer. These questions can include "What are my priorities right now?," "What obstacles am I running into?" and "What feedback have I received?"
Managers can also change the dynamic that is typically associated with the process. BJ Gallagher, a Los Angeles-based workplace consultant who has worked with IBM, John Deere and Chrysler, has seen many performance evaluations get bogged down by a judgmental and adversarial interaction. She said managers can improve employee performance more effectively and efficiently by using a collaborative approach, and that can start with the initial conversation in the yearlong check-in process. "The start of the year is when mutual goals can be established as a manager-employee team looking together at the big projects on the horizon," she said. "Use that check-in session to establish three to five goals and stay away from subjective behavioral goals. Make them measurable."
To that end, managers should approach the process like "a great coach, not a traditional boss," said Ben Wigert, director of research and strategy in the workplace management division of Gallup. "It's about changing their lens and thinking about what a great coach looks like."
Studies show that employee performance improves when managers give workers meaningful feedback and make the conversations more team-oriented. For instance, managers can get an employee's peers to give feedback. Peer input can help reduce some of the burden on the manager and emphasize the team aspect of the process.
But Kropp pointed out that there is a downside to peer feedback: It can be vulnerable to bias, especially when the input is given in an "open box" format. "We suggest organizations direct peer feedback with targeted questions about specific actions and outcomes," he said.
Another tool to make the process more manageable is feedback technology. For instance, a manager can formally capture all performance conversations and feedback in the organization's human capital management system, Kropp said.
Ultimately, revamping the process from an annual review to a yearlong conversation should lead to less work for managers, not more, consultants said.
Holly Rosenkrantz is a freelance writer based on Washington, D.C.